World’s Smallest Porpoise Teetering On The Brink Of Extinction; Only 60 Left In The Wild

The demand for illegal fish bladders is driving the vaquita's demise.
Vaquitas swim in the Gulf of California.
Vaquitas swim in the Gulf of California.
Paula Olson

You’ve probably never had the pleasure of seeing a vaquita in the wild. And unless action is immediately taken to protect this rare porpoise, you never will.

The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal on Earth, and according to a panel of scientists that’s been tracking the animal’s dwindling numbers, it’s now teetering dangerously close to extinction.

In a statement released on Friday, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita announced that only 60 vaquitas are left in the wild. This represents a decline of more than 92 percent since 1997.

Without a dramatic improvement in conservation efforts, this porpoise will be wiped off the face of the planet by 2022.

“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said panel chairman Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho.

With their benign, snub-nosed faces and sweetly smiling mouths, vaquitas look more like Hayao Miyazaki characters than real creatures. Measuring about 5 feet in length, they’re the smallest of the cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises), and the only porpoise species found in such warm waters.

Residing in the northern end of Mexico’s Gulf of California, vaquitas have been under serious threat since the 1990s, mostly from long gill nets set by local fishermen to catch fish and shrimp. The porpoise get entangled in these nets and drown.

The dangers facing vaquitas have only intensified in recent years, fueling a “catastrophic decline” of the species. The main culprit for this population decimation is a resurgence in demand for a particular kind of large fish, a critically endangered creature called the totoaba.

People clamor for the totoaba's swim bladder, also known as maw. According to The New York Times, the fish's bladder -- which has been described as “aquatic cocaine” -- is considered a delicacy in China and Hong Kong. It can sell for as much as $10,000 a kilogram, or almost $5,000 a pound.

Endemic to the Gulf of California, totoaba are captured illegally in Mexico’s waters before being smuggled across the border to California and shipped to Asia. Fishermen typically use gill nets to catch totoaba as well, which fatally entangle vaquitas.

A dead vaquita, photographed in San Felipe, California in 1992.
A dead vaquita, photographed in San Felipe, California in 1992.

Under intense pressure from conservation groups, Mexico cracked down on totoaba fishing and began promoting vaquita conservation. Last year, the country imposed an emergency two-year ban on gill nets, both illegal and legal, across the vaquitas’ habitat. It also launched a $70 million plan to compensate impacted fishermen.

The Mexican Navy, which is in charge of enforcement, has deployed new fast boats, planes, helicopters and even drones in an attempt to safeguard the area. Rafael Pacchiano Alamán, the secretary of the environment and natural resources, said the Navy recently increased its surveillance efforts, particularly at night.

But while conservationists have lauded these efforts, three dead vaquitas were found in March, each entangled in gill nets likely set for totoaba. More than 40 illegal gill nets have been found this year so far.

Frances Gulland of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, who performed necropsies on two of the carcasses, said the animals were killed by “the lure of big money.”

This March 29, 2016 photograph shows pedestrians walking past a display of different varieties of dried fish maw in a shopfront in Hong Kong.
This March 29, 2016 photograph shows pedestrians walking past a display of different varieties of dried fish maw in a shopfront in Hong Kong.
Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

Experts are now calling for the Mexican government to make the gill net ban permanent, and to be more vigilant in the enforcement of the ban. Addressing totoaba demand and trafficking is also key.

“As with elephants and ivory or rhinos and rhino horn, the relentless demand for the swim bladders of the rare fish in Asia almost guarantees that enforcement efforts in the field in Mexico, while vital, will remain insufficient,” environment writer Andrew Revkin wrote last year.

Organizations like Greenpeace and the WWF have launched campaigns in an effort to raise awareness about totoaba trafficking. A petition by Greenpeace Asia to put pressure on Hong Kong authorities to crack down on the illegal trade has garnered more than 37,000 signatures. WWF is also pressing the U.S., China and Mexico to put an end to the smuggling of the fish.

“In the end, if the vaquita goes extinct, the three countries will share the responsibility,” the conservation group said this week.

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